Book City: Tim Egan had his doubts about the Dust Bowl

The best-selling author on his books, keeping other authors' voices out of his head and what he likes to read when he's not writing.
Crosscut archive image.

Tim Egan

The best-selling author on his books, keeping other authors' voices out of his head and what he likes to read when he's not writing.

Tim Egan, online op-ed columnist for the New York Times and author of seven books, is a U.W. graduate and third-generation Westerner. He won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2006 for “The Worst Hard Time," his book on the Dust Bowl. Tim’s newest book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher – the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” is a national bestseller.

Val Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?

Tim Egan:  Mmmm, there’s a remote control, in case the Mariners catch fire, and then a stack of books. Atop the stack is “The Orchardist,” the novel by Amanda Coplin about apple country and its hold on people. I just started it, so too early to say if it’s a thumb’s up or not, but her prose is lean and moving, a bit like Cormac McCarthy without the overt attempt to be unstylish.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d recommend to friends and colleagues?

I’m still recommending “The Art of Fielding,” a first novel by Chad Harbach, about baseball, college and the responsibility of friendship. It reminded me a bit of early John Irving, before his stuff became too plodding. I don’t read as much fiction as I used to because it’s hard to find something powerful and moving, something that stays with you. Always on the lookout, though.

Your book subjects are intriguing … from a history of the Dust Bowl, to forest fires and Edward Curtis. Where do your ideas come from?

It’s a mystery, like creativity itself. There are usually a half-dozen or so topics and ideas I’m kicking around, and then I start the research on one of them to see if there’s a larger story there. I initially had my doubts about the Dust Bowl, and was afraid that no one  would want to read about it. This was a half-million books ago, so go figure. 

Book projects last longer than many marriages, so you have to fall in love with the subject and then stay in love. It shouldn’t be drudgery or duty. The Big Burn was a fire I’d always heard about as a kid, growing up in Eastern Washington. The backstory — about Teddy Roosevelt and the robber barons he fought to create our public land domain — was in many ways more intriguing. With Edward Curtis, same thing: I always knew a little bit about him, but once I looked into his life I had a holy shit moment. He created a masterpiece. He was a more famous Seattleite than Bill Gates is now. And then, he dies forgotten, having lost everything. A tragedy in some ways. It’s a story of the artist, as well.

Can you talk a bit about how your reading informs your writing? Have any of your books been sparked by something you’ve read?

I hear the voices of good writers. That is, when I’m reading somebody terrific, while working on a book, I can become a bit of a subconscious mimic. This is not always a good thing. For the longest time, I couldn’t get the somewhat elliptical and vastly superior Joan Didion out of my head. And then, Jess Walter was stuck in there for awhile. I’m a huge fan of his, and not just because we both grew up in sketchy parts of Spokane. He’s the thinking man’s Carl Hiasson.

Do you have a favorite among the books you’ve written?

As a parent, I’ll give you the same answer: I love all my children equally.

Is it fun blogging for the New York Times? I especially enjoyed your pieces about the Amanda Knox insanity when I was trying to figure out what in the world was happening…

My title is contributing columnist, so I think of what I do as more of an old-school essay rather than a blog. Some of those pieces, surprisingly, take a long time to put together, and even then, they sometimes don’t work. It’s hard to get one that really soars.  Others write themselves in a few hours.

The way it works on the NYT opinion side is the columnists come up with their own stuff, with minimal direction from the editors. The freedom is great — nobody tells me what to write, and they have no idea what I’m going to write until I send it along on Thursday afternoon for a Friday post. Opinion writing is great fun, but it was much easier when we had the Republican presidential primary and that field of clowns. I mean, how can sequestration compete with Michele “A Lady Told Me Vaccines Cause Mental Retardation” Bachmann?

Can you recall a specific book or author that inspired you to become an author yourself?

Not really. When I was 15 or so, I came down with a pretty bad case of mono, and had to spend much of the summer in bed at my aunt’s house, while my family went on vacation. I read “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, that darkly humorous, somewhat tragic account of World War II pilots and the insanity of war. I remember thinking: Man, if I could ever write like this….

What books did you love when you were a kid? Did you grow up with lots of books?

Books were always a part of our big Irish Catholic household, seven kids. I tore through — literally, clipping the pictures for school projects — the Encyclopedia Britannica, which got me in trouble. My Mom gave me “Huck Finn” early on, and of course, Hemingway said the foundation of the American novel is based on that book. (He was right!)

Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that disappointed, that you felt was overrated?

This can get you in trouble. The well-reviewed Seattle novel, “Where Did You Go, Bernadette?” was quite good, even though I thought it fell apart a little bit at the end. Those helicopter moms — I knew ‘em well in the years our kids were in the Seattle Public School system. I was deeply disappointed in the last two novels of Tom Wolfe; he never got his mojo back after “Bonfire of the Vanities.” In nonfiction, Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of the Beasts” shows him at the absolute top of his game. It’s extraordinary how he recreated the hothouse of evil in Nazi Berlin. But, he should have left out the last bit, in my view, which was rushed and didn’t fit.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?

I’ve read Great Gatsby three times, and it gets better and better. Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through it” was my companion, many years on the road, just because the prose is so perfect that you only have to pick up a page or two to get a sense of a master of his craft.

Do you have any favorite mysteries, sci-fi or true crime titles?

I think I’ve ready every one of Alan Furst’s nourish spy thrillers, most of them with a Parisian bent. Nothing ever really happens in the books, but the sex scenes are good and the characters fun to follow around in and out of the shadows. He’s a great stylist.

When and where do you settle down to read?

I’ll read anywhere with good light. And I always write in the same room, in my house, with views out to Lake Washington, Seward Park, the Cascades and beyond. Of course, on nice days, that’s quite a distraction, which his why I’m most productive when the weather sucks.

Are you working on a new book? Can you tell us about it?

Yes, though I’m keeping  it under wraps for now. But I will tell you it’s a nonfiction book that begins in Ireland, ends in Montana, with many stops in between.

What do you plan to read next?

The Amanda Knox account of the four years she spent in jail in Italy (“Waiting to be Heard”). She’s very creative, and from the early reviews, she can write.

What Val’s Reading This Week: The same book as Tim, which was so highly recommended by last week’s Book City interviewee I asked for it for Mother’s Day and have hardly put it down since. “The Orchardist” by Amanda Copley is a book about apples, apricots and rural life in Eastern Washington a century ago. It is so richly detailed, so multi-layered in how the author plays with time, nature, sunlight and the seasons, that it puts me in a reading stupor I’m loath to leave.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.